Dianne Fitzmaurice operates a fibre art studio, heritage craft gallery, and butterfly and fibre farm, called Creature Comforts Cottage, from her Siglavik Rd. home, just south of Gimli.
The creatures? Angora rabbits, Angora goats, Baby Doll sheep, llamas, and Painted Lady butterflies. The comforts? An array of wearable fine fibre art — hats, and toques, socks, mittens, scarves, sweaters and ponchos, all of which Fitzmaurice knits and felts by hand with fibre harvested from rare breed animals she raises alone on her small property.
“My natural fibre products are created by a truly organic process, supporting ancient breeds so that we don’t lose their genetic diversity, or the hand-crafting skills that have been honed for generations,” said Fitzmaurice.
The hats take eight hours to crochet, along with the effort to harvest, clean, dye, and spin the wool, and the time and expense involved in the care of her animals.
“I am still wearing hats that I made 20 years ago. A sweater or hat will be like new after years of wear, and they are washable.”
Hats, which easily sell at $100 a piece, are lifetime garments.
“As a hobby, I sold as many as I could make,” she said.
Fitzmaurice moved to Gimli from Winnipeg after searching for 10 years for just the perfect place.
“The property I was looking for had to be zoned for agriculture. It had to be small, manageable, and affordable, on a major highway, near a tourist town. I looked for 10 years. This place was an answer to my prayers. It was a comfortable fit for me,” she said.
Fitzmaurice, also an award-winning fibre artist, has numerous first-place prizes to her credit. She designs and creates an array of fibre hangings, sculptures and collectibles, with artist bears being huge favourites that frequently win first place at art shows. Fuzzy sheep, pelicans, polar bears and seals are a few of the other subjects for her fibre sculptures.
“Why I am bothering to raise my own animals to do this and not just buy the fiber? Because the finest fiber is not available to purchase. Many of the really fine fiber animals are so new to the cottage industries, and breeders keep the best for their own use.”
“I had always wanted a fibre farm, but it took me a long time to figure out how I was going to have a viable fibre farm that would pay for itself. I saw it as a retirement project that would generate enough income so I could focus on the art form. I found there is more interest in the fibre, alpaca fibre in general, than in the art.”
Fitzmaurice bought her first Angora rabbit in 1985 after seeing one for the first time at The Home Show in Winnipeg, inspired by a spinning wheel demonstration that used Angora rabbit fibre. Fitzmaurice eventually learned how to “spin off the rabbit” herself, a process in which fibre is taken directly off the animal as it is worked into a yarn.
“The rabbit has to be ‘prime.’ It has to release the hormone that regulates the shedding of its coat,” she explained. “This happens about three times in the summer months; less often in winter.”
In the early 1990s Fitzmaurice purchased two pairs each of Baby Doll sheep and Angora goats from Minnesota. The Baby Doll sheep, so named because of their smiling faces, were the first sheep breed to be brought to North America, but generations of breeding yielded sheep that became larger. Since the 1990s, an effort was made by breeders to restore them to their original state, now called “Old English Baby Doll Southdowns”. These have become a favourite in petting zoos and vineyards because of their smaller size and tendency to weed out grass and leave grape vines alone. Similarly, colored Angora goats had been culled out over the years. In 1990 some breeders stopped culling in an effort to restore the genetics and get the colors back. Both Baby Doll sheep and Angora goats are fine wool breeds, costing $1,000 each to purchase.
“Rare breeds. If we don’t raise them we’re going to lose the genetics,” said Fitzmaurice.
With only three other breeders in Canada, Fitzmaurice has added herself to the small list, selling a small number of them to help pay for the upkeep of the farm.
“Before I brought them home, I already had a waiting list. I have to sell the sheep to pay for their feed. There’s a market for the wool but I keep some mainly for my own use, except for some that ends up in kits,” she said.
Fitzmaurice gives private fibre tours during summer months. She will host a group of 15 to 20, by donation, and bus loads for a fee. Her quaint cottage is open to the public during the Wave artist studio tour in Jun. and Sept, as well as “Open Farm Day” in Sept., an event sponsored by the Manitoba Department of Agriculture.